Obstacles, drafts and edits: Do you dig or let sit?

Long-tailed Weasel 5

Image by -will wilson- via Flickr

Are you a digger or a sitter?

You know how some dogs just can’t help themselves? Left alone and unobstructed with all the yard in the world, they’ll dive in like it was Christmas, paws flying, and tear the place apart until you could film a moon landing there.

Others have their favorite spot for meditation and gravitate to the small depression they’ve made with their body weight and ritual circling, happy as Christmas morning just for being able to look up and watch the sky go by, the occasional ear twitching as they size up the arc of bird flight or squirrel jump.

meditating Matilda


Habits grow around what works, organically with our processes. Knowing the direction of our habitual grooves might lend us comfort, but it can just channel our frustration into a deepening rut. The antidote is knowing that the habit is a vein of truth intertwining every moment in front of the page or screen and every word we spill or wrench from our body mind and heart. Knowing our habit means we have a thread we can tug on when we need a bit of unravelling.

So are you a digger or a sitter? When you’re waiting for the next word, sentence, image or inspiration, do you tinker and spill, just let the juice keep flowing even if it’s dirty brown regurgitated juice, just to keep the pipes open? Do you take the “opportunity” to go back and place the commas and capitals that didn’t come through as the words spilled from your hands? If so, you’re a digger. Your habit is activity and running out and through and connecting and dissecting and…. and, and, and.

How much of your time is spent fingers hovering or resting on the keys, eyes roaming over formless space watching contours of ideas emerge, allowing them to sink through and then emerge from fingers, shaping the screen into the forms the mind sees? When you write, do you occupy both worlds for a while, the world around feeding color, shape and sound without form while the world you’re creating bubbles and starts and stops and becomes form itself? You, like Matilda our beloved, loving pitbull, are a sitter.

Whatever your habit, tugging at the edges a bit when you face an obstacle is an uncomfortable, rich and revealing endeavor. If you’re a digger, this means pulling back instead of diving in. Physically remove your hands from the keyboard. Put the pen down. Sit on your hands. Just read. Ignore anything your attention tries to linger on. Yes, this exercise requires you guide rather than follow your attention. See what comes up. Still nothing? Leave. Go get tea, coffee, water, yoga, jumping jacks or pushups. Don’t get involved in an epic project or conversation – you’re still working. Act like it. Just change your body and mind for  3 minutes. Now, come back and Go!

Sitter? Don’t re-read, go over, wander or list. As a sitter you have two options for guiding rather than following your attention: move your mind or move your body. Either drive those finger like they were on a treadmill, writing, writing, writing, doesn’t matter what comes out, what matters is the motion, minimum 250 words. Has to be words (or word-like strings…. misspellings shouldn’t slow you down) but don’t worry about the meanings or connections or even relation to the intended topic. Don’t stop until you’ve reached 250 or 500, then go back and read. No change, don’t know what to do next or where to go? Do it again. Rinse, repeat, rinse, repeat.

Or maybe  you’re up for an oil change. Change your body, change your energy, change your mind. You get one minute of jumping jacks or pushups (start by doing them against a wall – easy does it, it’s a minute and it won’t go as fast as it does when you’re staring at the screen). Or two or three, depending on your fitness level.  Pump not primed but out of breath? Then it’s time for letting the fingers fly. Just go. Start with the word pushup or jumping jacks and let it go. Think of yourself as a wind up toy: the exercise is the crank and the fingers do the dance. Find the fun in the play, and let it re-arrange your mind.

If opposing your habitual response to obstacles doesn’t reveal the solution to your editing dilemma, then it’s time to ask for help. Ask your friend, lover, enemy or guy at the next table. Hire a writing coach. This is the best possible situation, though that’s not likely what you want to hear. If your obstacle is stubborn enough to require more than transient application of change principles, it’s a valuable and rich one and will yield exponential return. Smile and embrace the stuckness, it’s drawing your deeper to your core. 


How to write a sentence: An interview with Stanley Fish

Stanley Fish at Pitt

Image by cgkinla via Flickr

What makes a stellar statement? A simple sentence, or a mysterious malapropism?

Alone among his academic peers, Stanley Fish is notable for his incisive analysis and straightforward summations of the most complex topics.

In this interview with Neal Conan on NPR’s “Talk of the Nation,” Fish draws principles from his new book, How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One, demonstrating that meaning follows structure and structure reveals relationships.

The Pointless Story: Direct Your Tale


Standard left hand draft course

Image via Wikipedia


Is any story ever pointless? Yes, and no. Every story has at least one point, but too often we include stories in our writing that leave the reader wondering which point we were actually trying to make and if we couldn’t have just told them more simply.

You don’t want your reader wondering why you included  your story, or whether you were illustrating your motivation or your opponent’s misfortune. There are two basic ways to direct your tale: either tell your reader up front what you’re illustrating, or create a tale with a structure that directs your readers’ attention to the point you want them to find. Ideally, do both.

For most of us, we’re making a specific point, or maybe two, with a given story. Maybe the story is the entire piece, or perhaps the story is part of an essay, supporting one of the premises. Either way, which details remain and what order and language they wear is determined by the point the writer means to create.

In order to direct a seemingly meandering, rambling or otherwise point-seeking story, write it however it comes out at first. Often, the first telling is chronological. That’s fine, however it comes out. When you return a few days, or even hours, later, underline possible themes, important words, images and feelings. Then, practice pruning: delete anything not related to the major theme you picked. It’s okay if it becomes smaller and smaller, the material you’re editing out isn’t disappearing into some inescapable void. This part is just to find the center of your story, the fine nub you’ll then embellish with selected details.

The crux of this method is choice. The first draft allows you to get all the moving parts out onto the table. The next step is to put aside the gear that’s the exact perfect size to turn all the other cogs, and then add the cogs back in sparingly and artfully, in a way that illuminates the working of the tale.

Next time: Structure and Function – How to Create Maximum Impact with the Fewest Moving Parts

What I… What I really… What I really Mean!

Desire - 08Feb05, New Orleans, LA (USA)

Image by philippe leroyer via Flickr

Instead of focusing on your meaning – because that will arise organically when your structure supports your content – focus on what you really want. Desire drives intent drives meaning.

The magic of writing is that by doing it you find out more about yourself and your message as you actually do it. The paradox that seems to be created is this: If I sit down to write something in particular, I already have a point to make – a meaning – before I start. How, then, can the process reveal new things?

When you sit down, you have a desire: to communicate, to land a job, to reveal something, to land a place in a program, to reveal your heart, to remember something lovely or poignant – there are myriad underlying goals, but what they have in common is desire.

If you connect to what your deepest driving desire is, you won’t stop until you’ve explored it sufficiently for your task, and you won’t be deterred by playing small. Remember that until you get to a late editing stage, this is truly yours and will be best served by you getting it all out an onto paper.

Let the meaning reveal itself. You focus on revealing yours.


Squeeze out the last drop, throw most of it away & end up with more of what you really want


Freewriting. grapes, pen, notebook, progress....

Image by juliejordanscott via Flickr


[N+1] + [N-1] = >N
Only in a writing blog, right? Consider:

N+1 signifies  “pure optimism sprinkled with tenacity” manifest when we find that one last bit of strength after we think we’re completely washed up, according to Fred Wilson. Seth Godin’s N-1 suggests that among the weeds growing in our calendars, on our desks, agendas and even in our minds, we let a few die from inattention. Godin asks “What if you repeated N-1 thinking until you found a breakthrough?”

And I ask, What if you wrote and wrote and wrote until you thought there wasn’t any more to say, and then wrote that “one more” thing? And then, What if you dropped a word here, a paragraph there, a clause later on, “until you found a breakthrough?” What if your lead was in your fifth page, and your conclusion the first sentence you wrote? What if your seven pages made three powerful paragraphs after the application of [N-1]?

Then the process of [N+1] together with the process of [N-1] would produce something more than the original “N.” When people are unused to writing, and sometimes when we are over-used to it, we get attached to those pages and those words on the page because they refer to not only the experiences they describe, but the experience of remembering and processing those events. First of all, the important part is the processing, and that’s not in the words. Secondly, your reader doesn’t care unless it relates directly to your art.

[N+1] is your first draft, and you do it for yourself. [N-1] is one way of looking at the revision process, and you do it for your art and your reader.

Do you write like you speak?


New Orleans: Sign on tire shop on St. Claude A...

Image via Wikipedia


Unless you’re delivering prepared remarks, your spoken communication is best off the cuff and a little informal. The intimate quality created by your small pauses, changes in direction or slang can cement the relationship and deepen the communication.

Aside: unless you’re using slang words like “pimpin’,” “gansta,” and “beatch.” None of these are appropriate unless you’re very familiar, or actually are a pimp, gangter or looking for a beatch. I’m not judging, but this will limit your audience and appeal.

Do pay attention, though, because if you’re like 75% of the people’s whose written communication I read, you’ll write just like you talk. The most unfortunate part of this is that over and above the pauses, slang and mid-sentence revisions which add value to in person communication, conversational speech often rambles. And even pimps, gangsters and beatches know that rambling cuts down on business.

Rambling is a sign of either disrespect or lack of expertise. Either you’re taking a circuitous route because you haven’t thought  it through yet, or because you really don’t think your reader will notice and you’re stringing them along.

Rambling as a result of unpreparedness is easy to fix: it’s called a first draft. One reason you might want a Writing Coach is to have someone read your first draft and give you ideas on what you really meant. If you have infinite time at your disposal, you won’t need someone with professional experience at sighting and unearthing your point and the best way to show it off, because the draft and sit process will work in your favor. You’ll come back two weeks later with an epiphany, and give it another go.

However, if you’re like most people, you’re writing with a purpose and perhaps even a deadline. And even if it’s just for yourself, cutting through our own shenanigans can be challenging for the most self-aware.

Rambling as a result of disrespect is both more difficult to fix, and really just a complicated form of unpreparedness – which is why you should want to fix it. The reason it’s difficult to fix is the conviction that leading the reader on is an effective sales technique. The problem with this conviction is that by underestimating your reader, you’re short selling your self or your product. If you have something of value get to it without repeating scintillating phrases. Your reader will see the value with clearer eyes, more grateful for the straightforward delivery.

Rambling takes three forms: the pointless story, the repeated lead, and the disconnected dots. Stay tuned in next week’s blogs for specifics on how to take your writing to the next level, when one of these is your obstacle.


A worker mixing the pulp at the Florida Pulp a...

Image by State Library and Archives of Florida via Flickr

Write it down, get it out, get it all on paper. Cough, spew, gush. Cross out, ramble and blather.

First drafts are all about finding out what you really think and know, where you need to learn more, and what it all means. First drafts are nothing like blueprints. First drafts are the gathering of the available raw materials so you can consider what kind of a structure to build. Why plan for a log cabin in the desert? If you want a log cabin after gathering materials devoid of wood, you have two options: find new materials (research) or move locations (choose another project).

For instance, most people have to tell a story chronologically the first time. After that, you have the opportunity – though too few people take it – to make it about something other than  yourself. In most chronological tellings, the story is about the author. If your intent is to make a larger point or reveal something important about yourself, you must look at the chronological telling and find themes around which to organize your report. Then you have a story instead of a monologue.

One & the same set of facts can have myriad applications. Getting it all out on paper is your first step, and allows you to sort out the various moving parts so you can choose to relate them to a central point.When the bag of legos has been upended on the table, you can allow your vision to be emerge organically.

Hidden emotion may be underneath, or all over, your first telling. Emotion can begin as creepy undertone, but is really just one more moving part, one you may choose to highlight or remove in service of your theme. Being overt in your intent clarifies hidden emotion.

Whether you begin with a clear vision or a murky need, use your first draft to identify the moving parts. As the natural connections emerge, allow the structure to emerge organically. Your log cabin may end up an adobe with a courtyard – all the sturdier and easier to live in for the change.

Whoa, whoa, whoa Feelings…. Really: Whoa!

Can You Feel It

Image via Wikipedia

I feel that saying you feel that something is true is redundant.

More importantly, it covers something up. Why tell your reader you feel that the Party In Power is wrong? Why say you feel that the sky is blue? Or that you feel that people shouldn’t do such and such things?

Because we’ve learned that when you use the word “feel” what comes next is supposed to be unassailable. Guess what? It’s assailable… and you want it to be. What you offer is meaningless in the public commons, or most discourse, unless it’s possible that you’re wrong. It’s possible that you are wrong – nearly always, and every time you’re saying or doing anything interesting.

So provide your reader with clarity about what you mean, and give the reader some reasons to care, maybe to believe. Caring is more important, because then you’ve engaged and communicated.

When you look over something and see you’ve introduced a sentence by saying “I feel that…” first just drop those three words. Next look for the deeper truth you were covering up by using them. Then write that truth, and consider the relation between those two sentences. Now you have a structure.

That’s the way to revise your work. I don’t feel it’s true. It just is.

Show, Not Tell


Scrabble, Word Games

Image by libbydorazione via Flickr


Wasn’t the best part of show and tell always the “show” part?

Sure, it was fun to fath on a bit about the turtle or arrowhead you brought. But none of the fathing held a candle to the pure holding up of the thing.

Writing’s the same way. Don’t tell me what you want me to see or feel or think. All that shows me is what you want. Lead me. Take your reader by the hand – or heart, mind or eyes – and lead them down a path inexorably ending in your point. Create an argument for your point of view and then make it elegant, lovely and captivating.

Build word castles, sentence villages and paragraph woodlands. Grow gardens of images arranged into a bouquet of meaning so streamlined and well-put together that one flower leads to the next scent drawing the nose forward until confronted with the fragrance of truth: meaning.

All show, little tell.

Find the genius in your writing


Peer Review

Image by CTR UT Austin via Flickr


Put down your pen, smooth your hair over that chunk you pulled out and take a deep breath.

Now, drop me an email, because I’m here to help.

Drop me an email with your writing in an attachment, and we’ll find the genius in your words. I need practice, and you need help – what a match!